de-masking the bridges

¡We're not for everyone!

We're not for everyone!

Read the article from the Wall Street Journal site or down below.

The Wall Street Journal
JULY 23, 2010
Sounding Their Way Around the City
By: Ralph Gardner Jr.
Photos by: Mustafah Abdulaziz

I've never understood those people who walk the streets plugged into their iPods, walled off from the rest of the world. I've got nothing against music, or podcasts of "This American Life," but listen to them in the privacy of your home, or on 10-hour car trips out to Ohio to visit your relatives. Why live in New York City in the first place if you keep trying to cancel it out?

I'd probably consider myself pathetically old-fashioned were it not for a new series of sensory city tours run by an organization called Elastic City. Their purpose is to heighten New Yorkers' awareness of the urban environment. I took the Dumbo listening tour. Worst comes to worst, I figured, I'd get to better know the area between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, whose sounds Elastic City's website promised to "de-mask." Whatever that means.

The evening began with Daniel Neumann, our guide (he's an acoustical engineer), taking the handful of us who signed up into an alley and inviting us to close our eyes and listen. Unfortunately, an industrial air-conditioner chose that moment to kick in, drowning out all other sounds.

Mr. Neumann tried to make the best of it. "Try to focus on the different frequencies," he said, adding something about harmonics and high-frequency rustling. But it was so noisy I couldn't make out what he was saying. Besides, my hearing isn't very good. I'm effectively deaf at cocktail parties.

I tried to ask the guide a few questions as we moved on, but he asked me to save them until the end of the tour. We were supposed to be listening, not talking. Sorry!

From the alleyway we proceeded to walk underneath the Manhattan Bridge. I'd never taken a good look at the bridge before, and I was struck by how elegant it is, how much it reminded me of the ironwork on the Eiffel Tower, built in the same era. But I remembered I wasn't supposed to be looking. I was supposed to be listening.

The problem was that there wasn't much to listen to except the deafening clatter of the subway running overhead, back and forth across the bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn. We passed a guy practicing the saxophone; I assume the reason he chose that location was because it was already so noisy he knew nobody would complain.

From the East River's edge we retreated to a spot where Mr. Neumann invited us to experience the acoustic horizon. He meant for us to focus on the most distant sound we could hear. I found a faraway jet but the subway (we were still standing under the damn bridge) drowned everything else out. And then another sense, not part of the tour, kicked in: smell. I detected the faint but sickly smell of sewage.

We had finally escaped from the bridge and the garbage when yet another sense introduced itself: mortification. Mr. Neumann announced we would be doing aural exercises where we walked the streets of Dumbo with our eyes shut. To prevent getting run over by a cab we were instructed to partner up with another member of the tour.

I wouldn't even trust my wife to lead me through the street blind, yet here I was supposed to hand over my future to some kid with tattoos and ratty Converse—a description that fit several of my fellow travelers. Were we supposed to hold hands, too?

I chose Todd Shalom, Elastic City's founder, as my companion. I knew he wouldn't let anything happen to me. He wanted publicity.

So I walked the streets like a blind person clutching Todd's shoulder. Unfortunately, it's hard to pay attention to the sweet trill of birdsong when you're afraid of falling or running into a wall. However, I'll say this for the exercise: After it was over I felt like my hearing had improved.

Mr. Shalom, a poet, told me—after the tour was over, not when I was focused on finding the curb—that he'd come up with the idea for Elastic City after realizing that he was more aware of his surroundings when he traveled to places like Israel and Argentina than he was in New York, where he grew up. "How can I continue the heightened awareness when I'm back at a place familiar to me?" he said he asked himself. "How can I travel at home?"

Apparently, our listening exercises were child's play compared to some of the stunts participants perform on other Elastic City tours. For instance, on "Monumental Walk," which takes place in the City Hall area, tour-goers make believe they're fountains and statues. "Literally," Mr. Shalom said, "we'll mimic the monuments with our bodies. We make a group monument on the steps of New York Supreme Court." Count me busy that evening.

Then there's "Dirty Gay Soundwalk" which wends its way through the West Village asking the question, "What's the sound of gay today?" For answers they hit x-rated video rooms, the Pleasure Chest sex shop, and the bar Julius, where they walk inside en masse with their eyes shut.

Mr. Shalom, who leads that tour himself, didn't share the clientele's reaction. But it was Pride weekend, and as Julius is the city's oldest still operating gay bar, I suspect its patrons have seen stranger things.

De-masking Daniel Neumann

De-masking Daniel Neumann

In preparation for his upcoming walks, “De-masking the Bridges”, we asked sound artist Daniel Neumann some questions about his work.

EC: Ok, for those who might not be familiar, what is “masking”?

DN: Masking happens when you put a certain article on your face to cover it, to hide, what is underneath. And audio masking is quite similar, in that a sound with a higher amplitude, a louder sound, completely covers the sounds with lower amplitude, the quieter sounds. When masking happens, the quieter sound may still be there, but our ears can't perceive it anymore. This question of whether the sounds disappear or just our perception of them, is also one of the side topics of the walk.

EC: How did you decide upon DUMBO for “De-masking the Bridges”?

DN: It's kind of hard to say what came first, the idea to make a soundwalk about the masking effect or DUMBO as a location with a very special acoustic environment. The density of very different surroundings in this small area really fascinated me. And because there are so many layers of sounds that are always changing, blending and competing, there is always “masking”. I also like DUMBO with it's post-industrial character and with all the initiatives to "improve" it, to make it a leisure area. This conflict is very apparent on an acoustic level, as if the industrial soundscape still wants to remind us or catch us somehow. It is as if the past is masking the improved “now”. I also wanted to create a noise walk rather than trying to find a few quiet spots for leisurely consumption.

EC: In researching the area, did it sound like how you expected? Were there any surprises?

DN: Part of my walking practice is trying not to expect too much, because only then my perception can stay open. This is especially important when researching an area. But since I'm still practicing - I didn't quite expect the Manhattan Bridge to dominate the area as much. The Brooklyn Bridge and the BQE seem almost quiet in comparison. So the soundscape is kind of tilted, away from the Manhattan Bridge. But in this way, the acoustic shadows are stronger and sharper and reveal some pretty interesting effects.

EC: What is the best way to document these walks? Do you make recordings of them? How do you prefer to document them?

DN: The ideal way of documenting them is step by step! Or in the memory of the participants. But since these two ways are fairly difficult to handle in an archive, my preferred way of documenting a walk is the score, which usually is a map with the route and marked points where the group stops. Then, I make notes and comments for what I might say at the different points. This way the documentation can hardly be confused with the actual experience, which is why I don't really like video recordings. Video always pretends to give one the experience, but it never really does. I guess if it's well-edited and made into a feature, it can talk about the walk—because it would be clearly different from the walk. I would still prefer a radio feature that is made of field recordings, where we use recordings during the walk with comments. The visual defines so much and focuses on particular objects, whereas audio leaves more space. Audio leaves space for imagination. Since one has to create the image of the bird you're hearing.

Further, the visual is also always directed. It points towards something, whereas listening puts you in the center. Audio talks about space in much more refined ways, since our two ears are the organ for spatial orientation. Anyway, so far I've only archived the scores of my walks. I also think it makes the moment of the walk itself more special and heightens this real-world experience, because you just can't rely on some future mediated engagement with it. It just happens now...

EC: How does the theme of de-masking tie in with your other work?

DN: That's an interesting question. I've never tried to read my other work in terms of its de-masking-ness: In my live concerts I like to use the room as a filter, in the way as Alvin Lucier did in his piece "I am sitting in a room". Through playing back a certain sound into a room and recording it, playing it back again and re-recording it, the characteristics of the room get amplified. This can be seen as a process of de-masking the characteristics of spaces. A recording of my latest concert can be found here.

Another concert practice is what I call Modular Collaboration. It is a form of collaborative composition for electroacoustic live concerts or installations, where the participants interact as equals in the formulation of modules. This modular structure is reflected less on the technical but primarily on the compositional level, because the modules are independent, only connected through a conceptual theme. Each participant creates his/her own approach and finds a place in the overall system that is being developed. In concerts, these processes run simultaneously. Through modular collaborations, a non-hierarchical, decentralized form of organization is put into practice, replacing the single composer as the creative genius. In our context I would say: De-mask the genius!

Daniel Neumann will be giving a series of soundwalks through DUMBO starting on May 23rd.
See here for more info on his walk and here for his website.

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